The following is a conversation between Justin Spelhaug, Vice President and Head of Tech for Social Impact at Microsoft, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving .
Denver: Tech for social impact had lots of momentum before the pandemic, and that will only accelerate as a result of COVID-19. To no one’s surprise, on the leading edge of this movement is Microsoft. And it’s a pleasure to have with us, Justin Spelhaug, Vice President and Head of Tech for Social Impact at Microsoft.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Justin!
Justin: It’s great to be here. It’s great to be here, Denver. Thank you for inviting me
What we did is we built on that tradition of philanthropic giving. We brought together the best of our commercial capabilities so that we had an affordable business model on top of our donations to support nonprofits with technology. We built an innovation strategy so that we could design fit-for-purpose solutions for nonprofits to meet their needs, and designed a global partner channel to support nonprofits.
Denver: As part of Microsoft Philanthropies, you have stated that a new blueprint for corporate social impact is needed. What does that blueprint look like?
Justin: Microsoft has had a history in giving for many years. Just in this last year, we donated over a billion dollars in software and technology, and that’s helped many organizations. We look at an organization like Medical Teams International who supports refugees in Uganda. They’ve been able to go from a fully analog world to a fully digital world, providing a much higher standard of healthcare support through those donations.
But for every one Medical Teams International, there are a hundred other nonprofits that are not equipped with the technology they need because the industry isn’t creating the solutions that they need, because there’s not the partner ecosystem to serve them, because there are capital constraints and boards… although increasingly now with COVID, are coming to realize the role that technology plays.
So we knew we needed a different kind of a business model. So what we did is we built on that tradition of philanthropic giving. We brought together the best of our commercial capabilities so that we had an affordable business model on top of our donations to support nonprofits with technology. We built an innovation strategy so that we could design fit-for-purpose solutions for nonprofits to meet their needs, and designed a global partner channel to support nonprofits.
Now, through all of that, we’ve been able to scale the number of organizations that we’re supporting from about 60,000 organizations to 190,000 nonprofits today. We donated a billion dollars in technology last year. And we’ve generated enough commercial revenue to support continuing to scale more nonprofits. All the incremental profit that we generate out of this operation, we fund back into public good initiatives in the company, like the digital skills initiative, or AI for Good, which you may have heard of.
So we really do think like a social business inside of Microsoft. We operate and think like a social business with the objective of serving as many nonprofits as possible. Hopefully, I answered the question.
Denver: You’re doing mission, and you’re doing margin, and you’ve brought the two together.
Justin: That’s right. That’s right. That’s that balance. And I have a balancing board here for your audience. This is a balance board, and I know it’s blurry, but it says “mission and margin” on each side of it, which we stand on every day.
Denver: Well, we talked about COVID-19 and how that’s accelerating the need for tech for social impact, and you have some wonderful partners there. One of them would be Team Rubicon. Tell us about them and what you’re doing with them during this pandemic.
Justin: Team Rubicon is doing some amazing work. They’re deploying 1,000 volunteers per day to support the COVID-19 relief efforts. That includes a new program they created called Neighbors Helping Neighbors where they’re leveraging veterans, which they call “gray shirts,” to help the elderly, to help those in need with basic services that are being disrupted by COVID-19. They’ve had 5,600 acts of service to that program. They’ve delivered 1,400 food requests also using those gray shirts, those gray shirt volunteers, supplying food to people in need.
Now, you don’t mobilize a thousand volunteers a day just overnight. You have to have the systems and the infrastructure to do it. And Team Rubicon has been on a two-year digital transformation commitment to build that state-of-the -art emergency management system and volunteer mobilization system that runs on our Dynamics technology so that they can accurately deploy these thousand volunteers a day where they’re needed most.
I’d say one last thing about TR, Team Rubicon, is that leadership team, the tenacity and grit and innovation to change their service offerings…. they respond to disasters, like all of the disasters that we’re seeing in Louisiana and beyond — that was their core model. But they’ve changed their model to adapt to the needs of COVID-19 and the local communities across the nation, which is really inspiring. So great, great team, great example of innovation at work there as well.
Denver: For sure. Let me just pick up on Laura and what’s happening in Louisiana right now. Tell us how do you help an organization get the right person with the right skill set to the right place at the right time in the midst of a disaster?
Justin: Whether it’s Team Rubicon or it’s the American Red Cross, responding to a disaster is a huge supply-and-demand problem. Imagine trying to get a volunteer that has sawyer experience, chainsaw experience, into that frontline where they’re needed most. Well, you need to know who those volunteers are, what their certifications are, what their deployment ability is, how far away they are, and you have to optimize all of that in the time that the volunteer has available. They’re a volunteer after all.
Well, the emergency management backbone that we’re building with so many different organizations that runs on Dynamics provides that intelligence; their data provides that intelligence, so they can precisely mobilize, which is exactly what they’re doing with Laura right now. Team Rubicon is exactly…and American Red Cross and others are exactly in that mode of getting boots on the ground where they’re needed most with the skills that are needed in that theater.
The Microsoft Community Training platform is optimized to deliver electronic learning content to a mobile-first environment with low bandwidth, and we partnered with UNICEF and countries across the world to ensure we could deploy this technology so that kids could continue to learn.
Denver: Fantastic! Another challenge is to help children and youth affected by COVID-19 continue their education at home. You’ve teamed up with UNICEF and have taken a global learning platform and expanded upon it. Tell us about that.
Justin: We have a platform called Microsoft Community Training, and it runs on our cloud Azure. When COVID-19 hit, we saw that, at the time, it was 50% of all children were not attending school. Now, a great majority of children are not attending physical schools, and we needed to create solutions that would allow continuity of education but to do it electronically.
Now, in the developing markets, we have many different solutions, but what do you do if all you have is a mobile phone, and you’re in a semi-connected environment with a low bandwidth connection? That’s a great majority of the world. Well, the Microsoft Community Training platform is optimized to deliver electronic learning content to a mobile-first environment with low bandwidth, and we partnered with UNICEF and countries across the world to ensure we could deploy this technology so that kids could continue to learn. So it’s active in Timor-Leste. It’s active in Jordan, Kosovo, Ukraine, and we’re moving beyond that to support as many kids as we can during this time of need with that online learning.
Now, of course, online learning never substitutes for in-person teacher engagement, but it’s a good step forward, and it helps manage that continuity of the learning experience for the student. And UNICEF, again, is doing great work around the world on that.
Denver: They sure are. UNICEF Learning Passport, as it’s known by.
Justin: That’s right.
Denver: Third thing that you’re doing, and there are so many more, you’ve launched an initiative to help people worldwide acquire digital skills in the COVID-19 economy. You’ve set some pretty big goals for that program. What’s going on there?
Justin: Yes. It was June. We announced the fact that we’re building a program to reach 25 million people this calendar year with the skills that they need.
There are really three aspects to that. First is making learning contents on Microsoft, LinkedIn, and GitHub available to folks so they’re able to get access to the skill-building content, particularly digital skill-building content, that’s most helpful. Second is we have low-cost and subsidized access to tests so they can get that certification that so many employers are looking to see on their LinkedIn resume or their physical resume.
And then we’re working on a number of job seeker tools, interview practice. We’re actually using artificial intelligence to look at people’s resumes and try to suggest the right next logical step so they can land the job because at the end of the day, it’s the job that brings home the bacon and helps close that digital divide that we see in so many parts of the world, including here in the United States, one of the most developed economies on the planet.
So big commitment from the company, all hands on deck as well to make this. It was needed before, but with COVID-19, it’s never been more needed.
Denver: Great stuff.
There’s a lot of externalities to this pandemic. We think of health, but one of the biggest is going to be food insecurity. Now, they were predicting at the beginning of this year that it was going to be a tough year because of climate change and the famine. Now, they’re saying that the number of people on the planet that could be suffering from acute hunger by the end of 2020 could be double what it was at the start of the year.
You do a lot of predictive analysis, and you work with a number of organizations in trying to mitigate that to the degree that it can be mitigated. Tell us about that work and who you’re working with.
Justin: So we work with a number of different organizations, and you’re right, the food insecurity problem is only getting more challenging, and when you look at that problem, it’s a complex problem. Yes, it’s related to global warming, but it’s also a geopolitical problem as well around borders and the political nature of different environments in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond.
We’ve been working with the World Bank to use artificial technology to create models that help us understand food insecurity by country and within a country, by community, so that the World Bank can look at how they’re deploying funding ahead of a crisis. By the time you get to a famine, it’s too late. A lot of people have probably died by the time you get to a famine stage. The key is: How do we get leading indicators that allow us to release funding ahead of a famine? There’s a lot of different indicators to look at. There’s a lot of data to look at. And that’s where artificial intelligence can come in and help us with that pattern matching, alongside good human judgment so that we can more accurately direct funds where they’re needed most.
We’re also working with the World Food Programme, UNHCR, and many other organizations to ensure that they’ve got the infrastructure to deploy food where it’s needed most and do that supply-demand matching as well so that we get rapid deployment of aid where it’s needed.
Denver: Yes, so needed.
Let me move on to refugees. There are about 70 million refugees and displaced people in the world now, and most of them are in cities but a lot of them are in camps. And if you just take the camp as an example, it’s chaotic. Many more people than the camp was built for, people trying to get identification, working with lawyers, matching and trying to connect family matters. Many well-meaning NGOs all going after the same information, a lot of redundancy. What does Microsoft do in a situation like that to try to lessen the stress and bring order to the process?
Justin: I’ve been in the Kakuma. I’ve been on the ground there. I stayed overnight and spent time in the camp really trying to understand the challenges, both in the camp and in the communities that are surrounding and supporting the camp. We’re taking really a multilevel approach to it, a generational problem. The refugee challenge that we’re facing in so many countries is so acute.
First, it’s working with organizations like UNHCR, the organization charged with helping support refugees. And in Kakuma, we’ve made investments in digital labs, in digital skilling, and in digital training so that we can create meaningful jobs and economic pathways for the very talented folks and children and women in Kakuma. Beyond that, we’ve invested with HIAS, who’s an organization that supports refugees and helps them build a better case management system so they can more accurately pinpoint the needs of refugees and get aid to where it was needed most.
I’d highlight one of the pinnacle pieces of work that we’re doing is with David Miliband and IRC, the International Rescue Committee. Here, one of the things that David is really focused on is measurement and outcome, and really ensuring that he understands whether his programs are having impact or not on the livelihoods and the longitudinal trajectory of refugees that he is trying to support.
There, we built a program management and measurement and evaluation system so that they can, for every program they’re running — whether it’s a livelihood program or a health and welfare program or a legal support program — better understand the outcomes that those programs are driving, measure those outcomes, and then, of course, tune their approach. That has been a big investment that he has made… we have made… to ensure that their services are having the most impact they possibly can.
What does that data model facilitate? What that facilitates is an easier exchange of information between nonprofits. And to the extent that technology providers like us, or our partners like Blackbaud or others in the sector build that common data model, it means that our systems inter-operate and data is no longer locked in a silo.
Denver: Great. Let me pick up on that a little bit, Justin. Is there a common data model in the technology ecosystem? I’m not an expert on this, but it does seem sometimes to be all over the lot.
Justin: Yes, it has been. When you take a step back and you say, “Nonprofit is a tax code,” and there are many different kinds of nonprofits, from health and human services to environmental sciences and support, but when you look at the core, there are some common processes — donor management, fundraising, volunteer management, finance, and operations, program delivery, monitoring and evaluation. Those are all things that most nonprofits do, and to date, there really hasn’t been a common data model.
At the core of our innovation strategy was starting from that point, and we didn’t start from fundraising. We actually started at the core in program management, case management, and measurement and evaluation, which is the mission side of a nonprofit. We built starting from there and created a data model that transits all of the core processes of nonprofits. Now, what does that data model facilitate? What that facilitates is an easier exchange of information between nonprofits. And to the extent that technology providers like us, or our partners like Blackbaud or others in the sector build that common data model, it means that our systems inter-operate and data is no longer locked in a silo.
So you may have impact information in one silo; you may have donor information in the other silo. You want to connect the dots so that you’re able to communicate back to the donor the impact of their dollar. Well, that’s unlocked with a Common Data Model between systems. Also, you may be Team Rubicon coordinating with the American Red Cross, trying to exchange information on mission. Well, with the common data model on mission, you’re both looking at that in the same way; you can exchange operations, exchange data, and move your operations forward accordingly.
So it is so core and critical to our strategy and I think to the industry that we do get this piece right. It lights up everything else from a technology perspective.
Denver: As they say, liberate the data.
Justin: That’s right. That is exactly right. That’s exactly right.
We’ve got the training; we’re building the partner services, and then the final piece is we’re trying to make our technology easier and easier to use, purpose fit for the nonprofit needs.
Denver: As you know, Justin, some 80% of nonprofits have less than 10 people and no IT support whatsoever. Are there ways that Microsoft can support them?
Justin: Well, absolutely. There’s a couple of ways that we’re supporting. Number one, trying to make sure that regardless of the resources a nonprofit has, that we’re providing training at their fingertips for their team and their staff. When COVID-19 hit as an example, we immediately made all of our Teams’ training, Microsoft Teams’ training, free through the TechSoup Microsoft Digital Academy. And within 60 days, 2 million new Teams users, 2 million new people in the nonprofit sector got on Teams and stayed connected. We also have training on Azure. We have training on all of our capabilities that we’re making available.
But beyond that, we have to recruit a base of partners that are like-minded, that view nonprofits as organizations that they need to support, that want to create an impact in their local backyard and their local community, that are willing to provide affordable services to nonprofits. And last year, we recruited 4,000 new partners supporting the nonprofit sector. Now, that’s the only way we serve organizations from Minneapolis to Mumbai is by having a broad base of like-minded partners with affordable services.
So we’ve got the training; we’re building the partner services, and then the final piece is we’re trying to make our technology easier and easier to use, purpose fit for the nonprofit needs.
Denver: You’re working on so many things, all so worthwhile and having such impact. Is there any one that has you particularly excited at the moment?
Justin: Yes. I think one of the areas that the world is trying to come to grips with right now is: How do we do a better job the next time a COVID hits? How do we create a rapid response system that does a better job analyzing health information around the world and responding to health threats so that we can manage these issues going forward?
We’re working with a number of different organizations, in Africa and beyond, to invest in a common data platforms, common data health management platforms, real-time genomics sequencing labs that can look at data in real-time and see new pathogens emerging, and creating the infrastructure for organizations like the CDC in Africa, organizations in the United States, international organizations like the WHO to exchange information on a much more rapid basis. And then also interweaving things like artificial intelligence to help us in that decision support process.
It’s such an important investment area for us. And given the world that we’re living in today, I think it’s an important investment area for the planet.
Denver: Yes. For all of us.
Justin: So that’s a major area of focus for us right now.
Denver: Well, that’s great because my observation has been this response has been too much country by country and nation by nation, and not as global. And what would be more global than a virus that has no idea about borders whatsoever? Yet even the way it’s reported — it’s Germany, it’s the United States, it’s Brazil — and it’s almost the wrong mindset to tackle one of these things.
Justin: Yes. Exactly right.
Denver: Some great stuff, Justin, where can listeners go to learn more, both about these case studies, and then the tools that you offer?
Justin: www.microsoft.com/nonprofit. That’s where we’re putting all our information. You can see all of our solutions. You can see all of the case studies that we have. And we’d love to engage and ensure that we’re supporting any questions that we get through that site.
Denver: Well, thanks, Justin, for taking the time to share these insights. I could have talked to you all day. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Justin: Real pleasure to be here. Thank you very much, Denver.
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